Thursday, July 23, 2009

Interview: The Complex Career of Lily Tung Crystal

Lily Tung Crystal lives many lives, as actor, journalist, teacher, blogger, and proponent of Asian theater. You may have seen her recently in readings of new musicals by Jay Kuo, or in Cabaret at the San Francisco Playhouse (she's on the right in the photo), or reporting from China on NPR.

I wanted to know more about how she balanced all these pieces of her life and kept her creative juices flowing. Our chat this morning gave me good advice on managing a "portfolio career", then took me on a tour of Asian-American theater and new works on the horizon.

Steven Damron: The first time I heard the term "portfolio career" was at breakfast with you. I love the term. How does it describe your work?

Lily Tung Crystal: I love it too.

I do a lot of different things. For most of my career I've been a journalist and producer, and then in 2005 that led me to media and communications training. But I'm also a professional actor and singer. I have many interests and passions, and honoring them all is important to me and enriches my life. But there are people out there that might judge someone like me for what they perceive as sacrificing depth for breadth. I, on the other hand, still believe in the idea of a Renaissance person. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, after all, did many different things. They were artists, engineers. Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor and had very little experience in fresco when he was commissioned to do the Sistine Chapel.

At times I hid my artistic endeavours from people in the media industry where I made most of my living. But then I went to an interview with the owner of Make Your Point Communications, a boutique communications training company, and when I left, the owner Kraemer Winslow said to me, "You are a perfect fit for us because you have a portfolio career." And I thought, "Eureka! That is what I have." She really valued my plethora of experience in disparate, yet related fields (they're all media and communications related). And her positive perception of all that I did encouraged me to embrace my identities.

I realize that my portfolio career, like a stock portfolio, actually helps me in today's economy. I have a myriad of clients hiring me for varying reasons. It's a good way to make a living, and I'm never bored. all my interests and fields support each other, so that I have the time and means to pursue what I like.

SD: Looking at your website, you still separate out your acting from your journalism, but they coexist on the same page. Is that how you manage the two sides of your career now? Is it marketing, or do you feel like they are really different sides of yourself?

LTC: It really depends on the situation.

SD: Do you have clients who see you in one way or the other?

LTC: There have been times when i'm fearful that people in the writing/journalism world would find my acting/singing "trivial." But through the years, I've found that I haven't put enough faith in people. Most people admire it and sometimes even envy what I do. And I've also found that if a potential employer or client does not respect my artistic side, I probably don't want to work with that person anyway.

After embracing my two sides, I've also learned that they support each other. As a journalist/producer, I mostly write about the arts. In fact, in 2003, I was awarded a prestigious one-year arts journalism fellowship by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. Being an actor enriches my arts knowledge as a writer, and vice-versa. I recently received a grant from Theatre Communications Group to write for American Theatre Magazine. One reason they chose me is because they liked that I was an actor and a writer. The editors there feel any working knowledge of the theatre only enhances a theatre writer's skills. And I love it because I can support the theatre, about which I'm so passionate.

Finally, being an actor helped me immensely in becoming a good media and communications trainer. Skills are skills. They're interconnected, and they all enrich each other.

SD: Any tips you'd like to give the readers on managing a portfolio career?

LTC: I've been a freelancer all my life, and many people ask me how to sustain a freelance career. I always have three pieces of advice:

1) Try to have a good cushion of savings. Freelancing can get stressful and nervewracking, especially when you don't have work for a month or two. But if you have, say, six months of savings, you can relax more and keep from freaking out if there's a slow period (like now).

2) Grow a good client base with at least 3 or 4 regular clients. That way when one client doesn't call, the other two or three may come through with work. Again, like a stock portfolio.

3) My third piece of advice has to do with having a portfolio career. Do many different things and do them WELL. The more valuable talents you offer, the more clients you can maintain and the easier it is to find work. I write news. Iyour current profile pics matches your current status perfectly, like serendipity or synchronicity or something. I copywrite. I produce. I media train. I act. I sing. This helps me build a client base.

Finally, embrace all your talents. Knowing how to do many things is something to celebrate! Many people stifle their passions, but life is too short to NOT do what you love. I believe in the power of optimism and putting energy into what you love. If you put energy into your passion and work hard, the universe will reward you with work in that field.

SD: You bring an actor's eye to any journalistic work on the theater. What theater are you excited about right now?

LTC: It's a hard time for the theatre right now, so I especially admire the theatres that are doing new, cutting edge work. It's harder to find audiences that will take a chance on new work, as opposed to a traditional piece they know they will like. The Magic Theater, ACT, and Berkeley Rep always have an interesting mix of work. But I really admire smaller theatres like Shotgun Players and SF Playhouse who are always doing innovative pieces despite their smaller budgets.

I just did a story for American Theatre Magazine about Shotgun Players' upcoming production of writer/director Jon Tracy's "The Farm." It's an intriguing adaptation of George Orwell's "Animal Farm" that's written in rap, hip hop, and spoken word.

Finally, I get excited about playwrights and producers who are creating more Asian-American theatre. There isn't enough material for Asian-American artists, so it's always great when a composer/producer comes forward with good writing for actors like me. One such person is Jay Kuo, who wrote "Insignificant Others," "Homeland" (now called "Worlds Apart") and his new musical "Allegiance." He deals with politics and race in his work and writes strong characters. Playing Mrs. Park in "Worlds Apart" is such a joy for me. She is a Korean immigrant mother that makes you laugh and cry throughout the musical, and an actor can't ask for more than that. "Allegiance" stars George Takei and centers on the Japanese-American internment during WW2 - good, heady, influential stuff. And the music is beautiful.

SD: I'm excited about Jay's work, too. It's great to see good roles written for Asian actors. What are the challenges for you and other Asian actors finding roles?

LTC: If you look at Hollywood today, there just aren't that many Asian-American faces on the screen. Many people just don't think about us much. I'm of two minds about it. The market is getting better - there is more color-creative casting, meaning if a character is not race-specific, directors are more open to casting Asian-Americans. But oftentimes if a character is non race specific, directors think of hiring a Caucasian first. They often don't think of hiring an Asian-American actor unless it's an Asian-specific character. It varies from theatre to theatre. Some theatres have that sensibility; others don't.

A good thing is that there are writers like Jay Kuo and Lauren Yee who are creating more work for Asian-American actors. As more of them come forward, there will be more work for us. There is also a new Bruce Lee musical that's being developed in New York right now.

I feel that Asian-Americans are in many ways experiencing what African-American actors experienced 20, 30 years ago. There is still an inequity in terms of African-American representation in entertainment, but there are more black actors on stage and on screen than Asian-American. A lot of people don't think about that. Part of it is our responsibility as well. We have to keep working hard and supporting our own work so that when opportunities come up we do good work.

My eyes were opened one day by filmmaker Justin Lin. From a story I wrote:
“Many Asian-Americans aren’t interested in their own artistic work,” notes Lin. “At the Sundance Film Festival I went into a studio marketing meeting. They had pie charts, and I saw slices labeled African-American, Caucasian and Latino. When I asked, ‘Where are the Asian-Americans?’ one executive said, ‘Look, Asian Americans put a lot of money into the community, but their spending patterns are white, so we consider them Caucasian.’ We’ll go see a white actor in a film; we’ll go see an Adam Sandler movie. Studio executives don’t think about racial politics, they think about making money. African- Americans will support their own films, so studios make specifically African-American films because they know they will make at least $7-8 million in one weekend. That’s where I see a glimmer of hope. If 10 percent of the Asian-American population came to an Asian-American movie, film executives would see a market there and start paying attention.”

SD: You mentioned to me earlier that you were interested in starting an Asian-American theater in San Francisco. Are you working on that?

LTC: Hopefully one day it will be an Asian-American theatre, but right now I'm trying to organize an Asian-American actors network. This would be a grassroots group of Asian-American actors, and it would offer acting workshops and business seminars so that Asian-American actors could get training and support and share their experiences in the acting industry. The longterm plan would be to grow this group into a production company.

I was recently one of five Bay Area actors to receive a Titan award from Theatre Bay Area - a $2500 grant that goes towards my acting career. Part of this money will go towards the founding of this network.

SD: Final thoughts on Asian-American theater?

LTC: I do feel things are getting better, but we as Asian-American artists have to be vigilant in creating material for ourselves, supporting each other, and working hard. I may not write plays, but I support Asian-American playwrights. Sometimes, I witness Asian-American artists saying that it's hard to maintain our skills because there is less opportunity to do so. That is true. But we still have the responsibility to work hard and maintain our skills as much as possible. If we don't, no one else is going to help us get out there.

And to theatres, directors and casting directors out there: hire us!

SD: Thanks for your time this morning! You have great insights into managing a complex career and American-Asian theater.

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